New York Philharmonic 2019-20 Review: Kelli O’Hara Sings Barber

By Logan Martell
( Photo Credit: Chris Lee )

On Wednesday September 18, 2019, the New York Philharmonic launched their 2019-20 season with an exciting concert, titled “Kelli O’Hara Sings Barber.” The evening’s program included the world premiere of Philip Glass’ “King Lear Overture,” as well as selections from Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet, Suites No. 1 and 2.”

Starting with Shakespeare

First on the program was Glass’ “King Lear Overture,” a musical fruit borne from the composer’s recent work with Sam Gold’s production of “King Lear,” which closed its Broadway run on June 9, 2019. On the piece, Glass writes: “The ‘King Lear Overture’ was conceived after the extended time I spent with the play in its Broadway presentation this last year. However, it is musically a completely new version of this subject matter. Were it to become an actual opera, the new thematic material for this new work is actually contained in the overture.”

From the downbeat of Jaap van Zweden’s baton, the piece wasted little time in revealing its powerful nature. Driven by the heavy brass’ scalar motions, the martial feel was tinged with a myriad of tones coming from the strings, woodblock, xylophone, and more. Glass’ trademark repeating structures made an early appearance through the rapid figures in the double basses. From these musical elements was conjured the royal court and the storm of madness which throws Lear’s heart and mind into chaos, imbuing the piece with a looser structure overall, where melodic themes and ideas last briefly before being swept away by the next one. This expressive piece was brought to a brief but strong conclusion by a single sforzando.

American Reverie

In the middle of the program came Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” sung by Tony Award-winning actress Kelli O’Hara. The measured opening from the woodwinds was joined by the relaxed strings in the Andante, un poco mosso. O’Hara’s approach to the text saw her use a lovely, gentled poise to outline the alliterative, observational imagery. Knowing just the right amount of vocal magic to add, O’Hara savored certain phrases as this sensibility lent itself to the small but soft crescendos which she would sigh away.

The jarring shift to the Allegro agitato introduced many bustling tones as the rhythm shifted about before settling back around 4/4. The streetcar at the heart of this musical pivot was seen through attentive, interested hues in O’Hara’s delivery, backed by the calculated frenzy coming from the orchestra. The tapering sounds from the streetcar’s passing gave way to more reflective measures, featuring a gorgeous, pianissimo B-flat on the phrase “Now is the night one blue dew.” The brief return of the A section saw the circling rhythm spread across constantly changing time signatures. For the amount of ordinariness made magic, the more poignant sections of the text saw O’Hara draw an abundance of vocal and expressive nuance.

Rearranging Romance

Bringing the evening’s program to a stunning conclusion was Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet, Suites No.1 and 2.” Selections of the pieces were reordered by Maestro Jaap van Zweden, creating a new sequence based not on the plot but on the musical character of each piece. This made itself evident immediately from the dire and powerful opening of the brass for the “Montagues and Capulets” section from the second suite. Arrestingly gorgeous, this opening firmly established the resulting music within either the long-standing strife between the families, or the impending tragedy which befalls them, as the orchestra’s fortissimo chord melted away into the Allegro pesante.

The next selection, “The Child Juliet,” provided a lighter contrast through the bells and running strings, with the lone flute carrying the melody of the piu tranquillo for a simplistic beauty. Following this was the rejoicing “Minuet,” whose majestic brassy chords seemed to be a brighter reflection of the opening selection’s darkness, with “The Child Juliet” as their median. After “Masks” came the brief “Dance of the Five Couples,” with a driving rhythm that made a gentle transition to “Romeo and Juliet Before Parting.” As the strings laid down an undercurrent for the legato flute and clarinet, the former rose to a tender, ethereal height which, after unfolding later crested into a powerful adagio with the rest of the orchestra. “Dance of the Girls with Lilies” established a oriental feel thanks to the presence of the tambourine and accented thirds coming from the solo violin. “Romeo at the Grave of Juliet,” brought a dramatic, lamenting flair which, after being joined by the resounding brass, flowed together into a gritty, poignant dirge. As the longing phrases of the violin diffused this atmosphere, it returned again with an almost-oppressive majesty.

While this tragic end would have sufficed, Van Zweden and the philharmonic brought things to a close with suite no. 1’s “The Death of Tybalt. Bearing much faster energy, with the rapid strings and winds punctuated by the triangle, this frenzied power was stalled by a series of stops and brief 8th notes, before  the orchestra rejoined for the Adagio dramatico. This grand funerary march made for not just a breathtaking conclusion to the concert, but an incredible start to the New York Philharmonic’s 2019-20 season.


ReviewsStage Reviews